Skip to main content

Bats Sing, Mice Giggle – Karen Shanor & Jagmeet Kanwal ****

This has to be one of the more eye-catching titles for a popular science book – it grabs the attention and makes you smile – then the content makes you think. The idea is to explore the inner life of animals, and make us realize that they are much richer than we realize.
Things start off strongly with a first chapter on the way animals respond to and generate electric fields. We’re all familiar with the zapping ability of electric eels, but there’s much more to this area. Not just milder electric field generation for location purposes, but also passive electric field detection that enables, for instance, sharks to home in on their prey. Then we move onto the use of magnetic fields, whether in bird migration, cows aligned North/South (rather frustratingly referred to but not really explored) or birds that appear to be able to see magnetism (with the right eye only). By the time you’ve added in creatures that can sense and interact by vibration you begin to get a strong picture that the ‘five senses’ are just a tiny part of the sensing spectrum.
We go on to look at different aspects of animal adaptability, behaviour, humour, communication and much more. Unless you are absolutely on top of this subject there are bound to be aspects that are truly amazing. Whether it’s the way salamanders can rebuild brain function after there brain has been removed, “ground up” and returned (this could have done with a bit more explanation) or the way even small brained creatures like birds have some degree of self recognition, or can count, the book is bursting with examples to make the reader go ‘Wow!’ It’s one of those reads where it’s difficult to resist turning to someone nearby and telling them about something you’ve read. I couldn’t resist doing a blog post based on something it mentions.
There are a few problems with the book, not huge, but mildly irritating. There’s a tendency to suddenly say ‘Karen did this…’ and the reader thinks ‘Karen who?’ It’s a mistake to assume that the reader can remember the authors’ names, and over-familiar to introduce them into the flow in such a careless fashion. Worse, many of the chapters can seem to be a collection of ‘this animal does this, and that animal does that’ statements – more a well written list than any form of developing picture.
On the science side, the authors are noticeably weak when the science strays into physics and should have got more help. For instance, when referring to quantum entanglement (for some reason in the vibration section), they say that if you have a pair of entangled particles at A and B, ‘a code can be sent out from A to B without any information occurring between A and B, therefore preventing interception.’ Leaving aside the strange usage of ‘information occurring’ they seem to think that you can use an entangled link to send a message. You can’t. It can be used to encrypt data, but not in the way they seem to think it can. They should have read The God Effect.
If you overlook the physics flaws (which are minor and don’t get in the way of the main message), this is mostly a readable, enjoyable introduction to an impressive subject. Despite years of natural history programming on the TV, a good book like this can still really open our eyes to wonders of nature in a fresh way. And that’s not a bad thing.
Paperback:  
Also in hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Logic - Eugenia Cheng ***

This is an important book, though I'm not sure Eugenia Cheng would agree with my logic in saying so. 

Going on the marketing, what we have here is a counter to fake news and dodgy argumentation in the form of mathematical logic. The back cover tells us 'Newspaper headlines and social media use emotions to warp the facts. Politicians and companies master rhetoric to mislead us. What one book could help us make sense of it all?' Admittedly they don't answer their rhetorical question, but I assume the answer is intended to be The Art of Logic. (Did the company behind this book realise it was using rhetoric, though presumably not to mislead us?) 

What we actually have is a combination of a lucid and interesting explanation of the basics of logic with the mathematical equivalent of those books such as Algorithms to Live By that were so popular a couple of years ago. They used the logic of algorithms (differently worded, and, to me, easier to understand), the heart of computer…

Quantum Economics - David Orrell ****

David Orrell's earlier title Economyths is one of my favourite popular science books of all time. Or, perhaps, I should say popular non-science, as Orrell shows just how devastatingly traditional economics uses the tools of science without having a scientific basis. I was, therefore, really looking forward to reading Orrell's new book - until I saw the title. As anyone involved with physics can tell you, there's nothing more irritating than the business of sticking the word 'quantum' onto something to give a pseudo-scientific boost to waffle and woo. Was Orrell doing the same thing? Thankfully, his introduction put my fears aside.

Orrell, a mathematician with a physics background quickly makes it clear that the way he is using quantum theory is not just employing magic words, but involves making use of strong parallels between the nature of quantum objects and concepts like money (more on money in a moment). Yes, this is to some extent a metaphorical use of quantum …

The Ashtray - Errol Morris *****

Wow. When someone suggested I read a book called The Ashtray, written by a documentary film-maker, it didn't strike me that it would be a book that gave deep insights into the history and philosophy of science - while also being a remarkable reading experience. In fact, I almost didn't bother with it, but I'm glad that I did.

The titular ashtray was thrown at the author when he was a grad student - thrown by one of the two best known names in the philosophy of science, Thomas Kuhn, he of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and the concept of paradigm shifts. Kuhn didn't like the young Errol Morris daring to challenge his ideas and reacted with what some would regard as a less than philosophical reply by hurling a heavy glass ashtray at him.

Part of the reason that reading The Ashtray is a remarkable experience is because it's a book that feels in some ways like watching a documentary. I have to confess I've never seen any of Morris's work, but he uses vis…